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Yes, and … How an improv attitude helps in many ways

Edge Studio

If you’ve had any improv training at all, you recognize the title, “Yes, and …” as improvisational theater’s primary principle. That is, when one actor improvises a line, the other actor cannot reject that premise and switch to one of their own. The other actor must accept the thought, and build on it. In that way an improv routine progresses and grows. It’s also a great way to approach many other situations we encounter in Voice Over.

Many voice actors think only of situations where improv is used overtly. However, “improv” isn’t itself a VO genre. In voice over, improv skills are often behind the scene, making it a part of virtually all VO genres, to some extent or another.

The most obvious application of improvisation experience is when you and a voice acting partner are, in fact, improvising. It can be a big factor in Animation. It’s sometimes acceptable in Commercials. But there’s no time for it in most Video Games production, it can be embarrassing or problematic in copy approved by a committee or legal department, and it’s understandably verboten in Audiobooks and Medical Narration.

As the great and influential voice talent Pat Fraley has pointed out, “improvisation is the most misused, and at the same time underused, voice over skill of them all.” You’re misusing improvisation if you change a script on a whim, or if the only reason you “improvise” non-verbal utterances (such as, “hmmmm” or “uh”) when reading a script (whether it’s for one actor or more) is to compensate for not sounding “natural” as you speak the actual words. Most scripts have often gone through an elaborate and strict approval process, and since you are not the script-writing team that signed off on it, neither you nor the director may have the liberty to change it.

But you are at liberty to inflect on it, to adjust the timing in places (to pause, slow down, speed up), to express humor, sadness or any other emotion in your tone of voice, and add other such touches as may be acceptable to the director or client. In fact, that’s one of the reasons they hire you, rather than read it themselves. They want qualities that you can add to the copy they’ve given you. In other words, …

Yes, and …

Improvisational training helps with this because it aids your understanding of timing, emotion and what connects (or doesn’t connect) with an audience. It’s not just about comedy timing. After all, not all VO situations involve comedy or even humor. (As Robert Mankoff has observed, “All comedy has humor, but not all humor is comedy.”) It’s about all the above. And all the above qualities are relevant to virtually every genre of voice over.

Sometimes, though, the wording of a script really could use a hand. We’ve all heard innumerable commercials that were apparently meant to be funny, but weren’t. They might be characterized as “humorous,” but sometimes even that falls flat. (A copywriter friend of ours has mentioned a time when he suggested to his boss that a line the boss had written wasn’t actually funny. For better or worse, the boss replied, “It’s not supposed to be funny. It’s warm.”) Anyway, if a sappy line is supposed to be funny, your improv experience can help make it so. Even a small change can make a misguided premise work, or make a point more clearly, or make the character more real. If the client is okay with it, your ability to “write on the fly” can be helpful and greatly appreciated. It’s one of those times when “improv” also stands for “improve.”

“Yes, and …”

But if the script has been approved by a legal department, three levels of ad agency management, a Federal regulator, four levels of client management and the client’s mother, don’t even think of changing a word. Use your improv skills in the other ways we’ve mentioned. And if you must inquire as to changes, be tactful. The writer might be on the other side of the glass or the other end of the phone.

Improv experience helps you in other ways, too. It better enables you to take direction. In the midst of a skit, you’re thinking fast. You begin to see where your partner might be headed. You understand, without having to ask a question. Although it’s generally better to ask the director for clarification rather than muddle around, there are some things you’re just expected to know. Or maybe the director wants to see what you’ll do with an open-ended opportunity. So take the direction and run with it.

“Yes, and …”

Being able to do that also aids your confidence at a microphone. Something about that hunk of metal tends to change an actor’s demeanor. It leads to unnatural speech, it causes stage fright, it tightens the throat, and inhibits body language. The pro knows how to bypass all that, to deliver a read that sounds natural and is vocally free. That largely comes from training and booth experience. But it also comes from the confidence to say to yourself …

“Yes, and …”

And at any point in your career, an understanding of improv can help you add to your repertoire. Would being able to do dialects or accents give you more job opportunities? The confidence gained from improvisational experience is helpful with that. Does your voice-over business plan call for expanding your profit base? Improv skills can help you expand into additional genres. And, above all, the same positive, can-do attitude that works for improv is also essential to growing your career as a voice actor.

Yes, and …”